Tuesday is Election Day, and, as always, Election Day is fraught with peril. Beware the seductiveness of opinion polls, which can badly mislead. Beware the even greater attraction of exit polls, which have so often been wrong in the past. Beware the too-early commentary, the too-swift rush to judgment. And above all, beware that the hopeful, reassuring clichés that will be passed around in the next couple of days will give false succor to winners and losers alike.
The Republican Party will benefit from some time out of office. Not necessarily! Those Republicans who comfort themselves with this argument should remember the example of the British Conservative Party, which was ejected from power by Tony Blair in 1997 and spent the next decade tearing itself to shreds. Spared the time-consuming need to govern the country, the Tories had more time to argue with one another about basic principles and split themselves into warring factions. As a result, they nominated one unelectable leader after another and have been out of power ever since.
The Democratic Party will become more thoughtful and responsible when in power. History tells a different story here, too: After decades in opposition, the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, vowing to reform the institution. For a while, they tried. Then they gave up. If anything, the Republican Congresses subsequently proved to be bigger spenders and more avid consumers of pork than their predecessors. More to the point, the current Democratic Congress is, so far, no better.
A Congress and White House unified under the control of a single party will function more efficiently. This, as Bill Clinton will tell you, is manifestly not always the case. To cite another cliché: Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without the need to do cross-aisle deals, the temptation to make bad decisions is high. Also, if and when the president becomes unpopular, Congress has an incentive to defy him, regardless of his party—and vice versa.
If Obama wins, our standing in the world will improve immediately just because he’s “different.” There will, I am sure, be a brief moment of shock and surprise when the rest of the world learns that one of its most treasured beliefs—”whatever happens, the Americans are always more racist than we are”—is untrue. There will also be a good deal of rejoicing at the passing of the hated Bush administration. But very quickly, reality will set in as foreigners discover, along with American voters, that the U.S. president isn’t as powerful as they think he is and can’t change anything very quickly, if at all. President Obama will not be able to end the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, he will not be able to make the stock exchanges rise, and he will not be able to halt the recession right away. And that’s only the short-term disappointment. In the long term, foreigners, along with U.S. voters, will also discover that America is not about to give up on global capitalism and start “redistributing” the nation’s wealth to others. Kenyans in particular will be disappointed.
After the election, we can finally stop talking about politics. No! This interminable political season will not, I’m afraid, be over so quickly. If Obama wins, every single one of his first moves will touch off debate: Not only will he be the first black president, the first post-boomer president, and the first Democrat in eight years, he will be the first Democrat post-9/11, which makes all his early security decisions crucial. By contrast, if John McCain wins, every polling organization in the country—along with the entire U.S. political commentariat, as Slate’s John Dickerson has already observed—will be utterly discredited. A lot of explanations will be required.
But whoever wins, the assessment of who’s in and who’s out of Congress, who’s been appointed to what in the après-Bush White House, and what it all means will take weeks and weeks. And, yes, the new president will very quickly be tested, if not by Iraq then by Iran, if not by North Korea then by Syria. At least on this single point, Joe Biden is correct. Alas, for those who liked the world better when there was nothing on television but Paris Hilton, it’s not over until it’s over—and even then it’s not over, not for a long, long time.